Movies

‘Nobody’ Director Ilya Naishuller On What REALLY Ticks Him Off About Russian Villains

There’s an interesting aspect about Nobody in that, like a lot of movies, the villain that Bob Odenkirk’s Hutch Mansell (basically all you need to know is Hutch Mansell is a former assassin who is now living a normal life, but an unusual day puts him back in the action) is battling for the duration is the Russian mob. The difference this time is that the director of the movie, Ilya Naishuller, is Russian and still lives in Russia.

And, look, he’s pretty frank that (and this probably isn’t terribly surprising) Americans aren’t the best at getting the nuances of Russians correct in our movies. So this was an aspect that appealed to Naishuller: doing a movie about the Russian mob and making the Russians a lot more authentic. (In fact, the original script was to be a South Korean mob, but after Naishuller signed on it was changed to Russians.

Ahead, Naishuller takes us through what he hates about how Russians are depicted in movies. (And hints at one that he really despises, which isn’t hard to figure out with a little sleuthing.) Also, he talks about his love of American action movies, which he started watching as a young boy in Russia and how that shaped his career today.

I enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would…

Well, a certain amount of healthy skepticism is, I think it’s welcome. I think, if anything, it works for the film, especially when you cast Bob Odenkirk in an action lead. We get to play against the expectations, and that’s a wonderful gift that not many action thrillers get the chance to capitalize upon.

Oh no, I mean because the marketing kind of sets this up as “this normal guy has had enough,” and that’s not the plot. Instead, he’s a trained assassin. Does that make sense?

It does now even more so, yeah.

I didn’t need to see Falling Down again. I guess that was my concern.

Sure. And especially not in this climate-

Right.

It would’ve been very tone-deaf. I may be Russian, but I like to follow up on American views. I spend a lot of time on Reddit, fortunately or unfortunately.

You still live in Russia, correct?

Yes.

There are a lot of movies where the bad guys are the Russian mob…

Mm-hm.

If the Russian mob isn’t happy with how they’re portrayed in this movie, is there a chance you might hear from them?

There’s aggressive people everywhere, and I’ve gotten my fair share of death threats for Hardcore, my previous film, which had zero offensive capabilities to anybody. So, the way I see it is, that when Hollywood Russians for bad guys, most of the time Hollywood is just, here’s a bad guy. Let’s make him Russian and have an American star play it with an accent, “Hello, I’m bad guy.” And that’s it. We, as Russians … [laughs] and I’m speaking on behalf of everybody without asking everybody so I could be totally off-base…

I’ll do the same thing for everyone who lives in the United States.

Perfect. John Wick did good here, this is one of the later examples of having Russians as the villains. And the way we see it is that it’s kind of like, eh, it works, it’s fine. The whole myth of what Keanu Reeves, the character is, it makes zero sense. I spoke about this very openly with [John Wick and Nobody writer] Derek [Kolstad], and Derek’s a very, very cool dude. Great human being. When I signed onto the film, the villains were South Koreans. And I told Derek, I said, “Derek, if I’m to shoot this film with the villains being South Koreans, what I’m going to do to to South Koreans is what you guys always do to Russians.”

That makes sense.

And I love South Korean cinema. I’ve seen a lot of movies, but that’s as far as my knowledge of the culture goes, and it’s going to be just surface-level. So I said let’s make them Russians. And everybody’s like, Ilya, you sure? You’re Russian yourself. I’m like, well, that means I’ll do a good job. They’ll be authentic, let’s just make sure we get real Russian great actors for it, let’s get a Russian soundtrack, and let’s make sure, when they talk to each other, they’re going to be talking in Russian with subtitles. You do that, and then I feel like it’s okay to do so.

That’s interesting.

The film just came out in Russia and we got great reviews. I was reading through all the feedback on social media and everyone is saying, “For the first time, Hollywood nails the Russians. Because there’s a Russian guy who’s doing the nailing.”

What’s the intricate difference? What’s the specific thing that you get right that other people get wrong about this aspect?

It’s a very good question, because I’m trying to figure it out. I play on all the stereotypes that are expected, you know, the vodka, et cetera, but it’s the authenticity of the actors, it’s us playing us, in a way. The Russian music makes a big difference. We don’t have the theme from Tetris. It is a great question, because I don’t have a great answer, and it’s such a rarity when I’m thrown off by a question. You did it, congratulations.

Oh, good, I’m glad.

I have to think about this, this is a great thing. Really is a great question.

Well, something I noticed is, and I’m not sure this is what you’re seeing, but the Russian crime boss, he’s kind of got a legitimate beef against Bob Odenkirk’s character, Hutch. The Russian mobsters on the bus hadn’t done anything wrong quite yet except be rowdy. They at least didn’t deserve that response from Hutch yet.

Well, because they didn’t. My first phone call with Bob, I said, Bob, I think the reason this film can be special, if done correctly, is because unlike every other retired hitman going back to the business, in all these films it’s always, “They killed my dog. I don’t want to go back, but I have to.” Look at Commando. Look at Taken. With this one, the character doesn’t have to, but he really wants to. Coming back, I finally realized a good answer, or a half-decent answer to your question about the Russian. The Russian villain, he really isn’t a villain, in a way.

His job occupation, he’s a villain, but in the movie, yeah.

He’s totally the opposite of Hutch until the very end. He’s the guy that wants to dance and look at art, he doesn’t care for the whole crime thing.

Well, he did kill that one guy out of nowhere, the investor.

He did, but that is to prove a point to keep his job, in a way.

You’ve referenced a lot of good movies so far. Like Commando. Were these your influences?

I was very lucky that my parents never censored anything. They said, “Don’t watch erotica,” and that’s it. So I watched everything. I remember watching The Thing when I was 10 and being absolutely horrified, but having the time of my life.

You saw The Thing when you were 10? That’s a rough movie for 10. That movie’s horrifying today.

The stomach eating the doc’s hands, I had nightmares for months. Look, the wonderful thing is I didn’t grow up to be a guy who wants to hurt people. I hate violence outside of movies. But in films? When the stakes are this high, it’s just more fun. When you’re playing with the action film, you need to have this violence. I don’t like PG-13 for movies like these, because it just feels, to me, it’s so untruthful. There are consequences to being stabbed, there are consequences to being shot. I think Wes Craven said it very nicely: he said that having an R-rating, having violence and having knives that hurt people, and you’re seeing people die is a lot more correct path for society. Rather than saying, “Ah, we shot a few people, it’s okay. They fell down, it’s fine.” I’m paraphrasing very weakly, because Wes Craven knew how to make a point.

So relations between the governments of United States and Russia are at the lowest point since the Cold War. Obviously, this is bad for the world, but is it good for movies?

You know, I’ve thought about this. And honestly, the tensions are between the governments. The Russian people have nothing against Americans.

A lot of great movies came out of the rivalry between these two countries.

Derek said to me during one of our early meetings, when I said let’s not make them South Korean, go for the Russians, he said, “Look, I think we’re generally kind of scared of the Russians, in a way.” He said, “If I had to piss somebody off, I’d rather not piss off a Russian.” I said, “Well, that’s kind of cute.”

Well, sometimes we think of Drago. You don’t mess with that guy.

Drago is not a Russian name, it’s an Eastern European name. So it’s always been that sense of … I always thought it’s very playful. I was never once offended. The only time, I’d rather not mention the name, there was a big Hollywood movie where the Russians were the villains where I, at a certain point, I was like, “Fuck, this is too much.” The villain in that movie calls his boss in Moscow. And he calls his boss, and the boss’ name is Pushkin. Now, Pushkin is our big poet, we call it “everything we have.” That’s an official name, right? So it’s kind of like, the way I explain it to Americans is that, imagine there was a Russian movie where an American gangster flew out to Russia, broke a lot of people, and called his boss and his boss’ name was Mark Twain.

I know the movie.

There you go. That, in a way, it just felt so disrespectful. Because, yeah, it’s silly to feel disrespected by a movie. But it just felt like, do your fucking homework and don’t just try to be cute. It’s like “Dostoevsky” at the end of Justice League. It’s like, come on.

You’re talking about the original one right?

The Whedon’s version. That was not in Snyder’s cut. But every time there are weakly researched Russian villains, or villains from any country outside the U.S., the countrymen who watch that movie, they just feel that. But, to me as a filmmaker, I always said if I’m going to make a movie in America and if it will happen to have Russian villains, let’s make it right.

‘Nobody’ opens in theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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